Friday, March 20, 2020

Three Reviews: Field Notes for the Self (Randy Lundy); Loss of Indigenous Eden and the Fall of Spirituality (Blair Stonechild); and Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage (editors Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day)

“Field Notes for the Self”

Written by Randy Lundy

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-776913

It's official: Saskatchewan’s Randy Lundy is one of my favourite Canadian poets. His last collection, Blackbird Song, fueled my fandom for this erudite writer, but the recently-released Field Notes for the Self has secured it. This is a poet at the top of his game: one doesn’t so much read this new collection of mostly prose poems as she experiences it. This is Lundy’s magic: although the title indicates that these are works “for the Self” - and the second person “You” (the narrator) is addressed throughout - I felt these contemplative works so viscerally it was as if they were articulating my own intimate thoughts and practices. Move over, Mary Oliver.  

In Blackbird Song, many poems spun on the word thinking, and in this handsome new volume, knowing is central. Lundy writes: “you know you know the song, but nothing is clear to you anymore,” “Your heart knows and holds the key - meditate, live purely, do your work, be quiet,” and “You know that you almost know, and you know that is as close as you will get.”

There’s a tremulous acceptance in these quiet yet powerful poems. “You see so little and know so little, perhaps that is a kind of wisdom. But you don’t think so.” There’s also much consideration of death: “Today, the memory of all your dead drove you to your knees. It is the best place from which to see the beetles in the dirt, each a black, hard-shelled casket that will bear your flesh into the next world, and the next. Study that. Practise that kind of knowing.”

The poet’s dressing down of Self - “What you know is that everything you thought you knew, up until today, amounts to nothing. You know nothing” - contradicts the wisdom and beauty he imparts. The existentialist belief that the universe is unfathomable is a through-thread, but exquisite beauty exists and is frequently honoured: “meteorites like a necklace of fire,” a woman’s hands in dishwater are “moving like pale, lazy carp,” a doe’s “curved hooves leave quotation marks in the soft, clay-banked hillside,” and an “iris shoves its fist skyward, unfolds like a hand”.

I appreciated the journal-like openings, and the poems’ transformations: several begin with the time of day, season, place, and/or weather, ie, “Knowing What You Do Not Know” begins “Rain for hours this January afternoon and northwest wind at fifty-three kilometres an hour.” Lundy transports readers from that opening to this conclusion: “Here comes that something that’s always been consuming you—the way your yellow, whiskey-stink piss eats the white, white snow”.

The doors in are deceptively simple, ie: the seven-paged “Book of Medicine” begins “End of July, two days of rain/after two months of drought” but the poem also philosophically considers that “Maybe there is no way/to pass through this life, without/being lost over and again”.     

These are poems adrift between light and dark, between life and death, and “between metaphor and common sense”. These are poems for now, and always.   


“Loss of Indigenous Eden and the Fall of Spirituality”
by Blair Stonechild
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$32.95  ISBN 9-780889-776999

Blair Stonechild’s made a name for himself as the skilled writer of numerous nonfiction books, and as a professor of Indigenous Studies at Regina’s First Nations University of Canada. Stonechild’s led an interesting life. He attended Residential School, obtained his doctorate and became an academic and historian, and he’s worked closely with First Nations Elders for more than forty years. He’s supremely well qualified to write on Indigenous spirituality, and that’s precisely what he’s mastered in his latest book.

In this ten-chaptered new title, Stonechild discusses how “the Indigenous world preceded that of modern civilization, that it contained values vital to human survival, and that the significance of ancient beliefs needs to be re-explained for today’s world”. The author’s travelled globally to visit other Indigenous communities, and writes that “we all share incredibly strong beliefs about the transcendent”.   

He begins by discussing the fundamentally-held belief among Indigenous Peoples of the world that they possess a “sacred obligation” re: protecting the land and environment, and hold a common belief that “spirits lurk in every corner – in trees, in animals, and even in rocks”. “All things … have spirit essence and all interact in a web of interrelationships.” Humans are here to learn, Stonechild’s mentor, Saulteaux Elder Danny Musqua, told him, and our time on Earth is a journey “back to the Creator and the spirit world, their real home”. One of many things I learned from Stonechild’s book is that “stars” figure prominently in many Indigenous origin stories, including the Dakota, Navajo, Cree, and Aztecs.   

So why, according to Indigenous spirituality, are we here? “To be the servant of the creator,” in the physical bodies we’re given, and, as Musqua professed, “physical life is intended to be a challenge”. Spiritual tools consist of Seven Disciplines: “fasting, sharing, parenting, learning, teaching, praying, and meditating”. (I know something of this: my brother, Ron Meetoos (RIP), a Cree from Thunderchild First Nation, was an Elder. I’ll never forget his dedication to his culture: he participated in a Sun Dance … I saw the wounds on his chest.)

I love to learn, and reading this book was a wide education. I didn’t know that the Dene that migrated from “what is now northern Canada to the American southwest” became Navajo. I didn’t know that when First Nations Peoples say “all our relations” in prayers, these relations include “natural and supernatural realms”. And I didn’t know that the Sweat Lodge represents “the womb of mother Earth and is for cleansing through symbolic rebirth”. But beyond Indigenous spirituality, Stonechild also shares information on several other diverse topics, from the history of world religions to globalization, from water degradation to depression and anxiety – “diseases of the soul”.

One need only consider the current Covid-19 pandemic to feel great despair for our world, but perhaps if more of us “maintain[ed] a strong belief in the cyclical nature of all created things,” as Indigenous Elders do, hope would supersede fear, and we’d all enjoy this journey on Earth far more.


“Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage”

Edited by Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95 ISBN 9-780889-776562

In many Indigenous cultures’ origin stories, “Turtle Island” refers to the North American continent, and its aptly used in the title of a new University of Regina Press anthology about Indigenous theatre and performance “in the land now called Canada”.  

In response to “Call to Action #83 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] of Canada” - in which artists are called upon to “undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process” - Saskatchewan editors and professors Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day compiled essays by Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors to promote “discussion around Indigenous theatre and performance practices … from a multidisciplinary perspective.”

The book’s partly the outcome of a September 2015 gathering at the University of Regina and First Nations University. This namesake event, “Performing Turtle Island: Fluid Identities and Community Continuities,” allowed scholars and artists “to focus on how Indigenous theatre and performance are connected to Indigenous ways of knowing and well-being, while also considering the role of Indigenous identity in shaping the country’s [identity]”.

Significantly, over the last three decades Indigenous playwrights including the esteemed Tomson Highway, Drew Hayden Taylor and Daniel David Moses, plus many newer writers, have been working to counter “hackneyed representations of Indigeneity by creating robust and dynamic expressions of Indigenous peoples”. The anthologies’ editors and contributors acknowledge the difficult ethics re: applying “Western theoretical approaches to interpret Indigenous literatures”.  

The book’s first section consists of pieces in which the authors “critique performance through an Indigenous knowledge system” to “replace or adapt old paradigms of settler colonialism with new models and methodologies.” Writer Michael Greyeyes - educator, dancer, choreographer and artistic director - concentrates on the “physical aspect of theatre training,” and the promotion of Indigenous languages through theatre. In his conversational opening essay - reprinted verbatim from his keynote conference address - he explains how he was cast for a period part (a miniseries for the National Geographic Channel) that was being shot in South Africa, and how he had to transform his “out-of-shape movement professor” body into one that was muscular and plausible for the Mayflower-era role. He writes that he respected the script for its “complex and sophisticated” portrayals of Indigenous characters. No stereoptypes here, just “vivid and breathing portraits” that revealed all characters as both saint and sinner. The Indigenous cast was coached to speak an endangered dialect -Abenaki - by one of the last dozen speakers of that language.  

Filmmaker Armand Garnet Ruffo tells the story of the challenging, ten-year making of his feature film Windigo Tale, which began as a two-act play. I enjoyed his candid anecdotes about quickly running out of money and searching for more; weather and continuity issues; and his frequent good luck (“Nanaboozho smiled on me”) in finding people willing to work with him.

The second section concerns “Performance in Dialogue with the Text” and includes Kahente Horn-Miller’s piece on the Sky Woman story and an interview with Daniel David Moses. All-in-all, a beautiful production.